When you visit the old town of Takayama in the Gifu Prefecture, one thing will catch your attention, which is the unique red Sarubobo doll, and this is also the most prominent souvenir found here. Cute and unique, this Japanese doll has been seen at many places around this part of Gifu.
Also known as a lucky baby monkey, the Sarubobo doll usually comes in red color and has no facial features. It looks like an incomplete toy doll with clothes. Arms and legs stretched out as if the doll is jumping. Most of the Sarubobo dolls sold will have a Japanese word on their stomach, which means ‘Hida’ or the region it comes from.
When you travel around the Hida region of Gifu and its surroundings, you will most likely come across these dolls at various places. Most of the time in souvenir shops or hanging outside restaurants or homes. They are usually small to medium in size, used as key chains, and can be as big as a little child.
Personally, I have seen them as small as pen charms and as large as a five-year-old child. In other parts of Japan like Tokyo or Osaka, it is not easy to find them, hence they make a wonderful souvenir when you visit this part of Japan.
A unique souvenir when anyone visits Takayama in the Gifu Prefecture
What is a Sarubobo?
Translated from Japanese, Saru is the word for monkey while Bobo is a baby, from the Takayama Japanese dialect. However, Saru has another meaning which is ‘leave’, and hence some say that the monkey can take away your happiness.
There is no actual accurate history to this but research shows that the Sarubobo was first discovered in the Edo period (1603 to 1868), as women made these dolls to protect their babies from harm or bad things.
One of the reasons claim that during the heavy snowfall in the Hida region, grandmothers made these Sarubobo dolls for children who could not go out and play, and had something to entertain themselves while at home.
Some even say that the dolls were hand made by the farmers’ wives as toy dolls for their children. The reason for this is because they were too poor to buy proper toys. At the end of the day, there are so many different reasons being told by different people.
Original design Sarubobo dolls hanging
I believe, the most accurate reason would date back to the Edo period as the Sarubobo has some significance to the Amagatsu doll from the Nara period (AD 710 to AD 794). What happened between the Nara and Edo period is unclear about the dolls history.
In modern day, it is said that the dolls were given as a charm to someone important and close, to bring good fortune to the person. As tradition caught one, mothers started to sew them for their daughters, especially when they got married. This was to signify a happy marriage and also a smooth baby delivery.
Originally, the Sarubobo is in red color and one of the main reasons for this is to symbolize the connection to a baby monkey. When a baby monkey is born, the face is red in color. Another reason is that back in the Edo period, many Japanese people believed that the color red would protect children from evil things.
There are of course other meanings which have been passed on for generations, and the most common one is protection from bad or evil things. When you visit Takayama, you can talk to the locals to find out more about this mystery.
The faceless Sarubobo dolls
Why does Sarubobo have no face?
A good question that has been asked over and over. There are a few reasons for this, which are very interesting. First of all, the Sarubobo doll is faceless. There are no eyes, nose, mouth or ears, which look a little weird at first.
One of the main reasons for this is that the doll represents a mirror, hence when a person is happy and looks at the doll, it reflects the person’s happy face. So, when a person is sad, the doll would reflect the sadness along with the person.
Another reason is that during the old days, the doll was made from leftover materials in the home, and there was no reason to make them complete like other toy dolls.
In Takayama, an old folk’s tale is that the dolls were made faceless during world war two. Because of the unhappy period, and also sad people during that time, they made the dolls without faces, rather than make them with sad faces.
A Sarubobo curtain hangs in front of a restaurant in Takayama
Colors of the Sarubobo
Nowadays, the Sarubobo doll comes in various colors and each of them have their own meaning. This was conceptualized after the doll became more popular, especially as souvenirs.
When you walk into a souvenir shop in Takayama or its surrounding areas, you will see multiple colors available. Some of them even have the meanings attached to the doll. They even sell cakes, candy and other related souvenirs that resemble the doll. Below are some of the colors and meanings.
Red Sarubobo – For family and marriage, where it promotes a happy marriage, smooth childbirth and a healthy growth of children.
Pink Sarubobo – Pink is always connected to love, and usually given to a single person to find a partner. Giving this to a couple also signifies a good and healthy relationship for the couple.
Blue Sarubobo – Given to someone in school, college or university. This will help the person do well in his or her studies and exams. It also provides calmness and concentration to that person.
Green Sarubobo – Green is associated to health and peacefulness to that person, and also to prevent sickness and give good health.
Orange Sarubobo – Known to be given to newlyweds, Orange color represents a long journey and to have many kids.
Yellow Sarubobo – As yellow is similar to gold, this color promotes financial success, often related to luck in gambling or money. Great for those chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Gold Sarubobo – A more prominent and stronger factor for those seeking financial stability. Also assisting with cultivating the skill and talent of the person with an added protection against bad luck.
Purple Sarubobo – This color promotes longevity and a prosperous long successful life. Great to be given to grandparents for long life.
Silver Sarubobo – A silver color denotes friendship and talent, which is usually given as souvenirs to friends. This is one of the best souvenirs to by.
Black Sarubobo – As black is associated with darkness, this color is a protector towards evil and negative things.
Different colors of the Sarubobo dolls for sale
At Takayama, a souvenir shop explains what a Sarubobo doll is.
Where to find Sarubobo?
The best place to see them or buy them are in Takayama old town area. Here, you will find many shops selling them or displaying them. They come in multiple colors and sizes, but please note that the original Sarubobo colors are red with a black clothing.
For those who are interested, there are Sarubobo doll making classes available in the Takayama area. You can ask your tour guide or tourist information when you are there, and take the simple class. This is recommended for anyone who loves handicraft or handmade items.
A recommended place is the Hida Takayama Crafts Experience Center where you can learn how to make a Sarubobo foll for around 1,500 Yen, and all materials are provided. Please give at least two to three hours for the class.
Next time you plan to visit this part of Japan, do keep an eye out for the unique Japanese Sarubobo doll, especially in the Takayama and Hida area.
A multiple award-winning travel writer, blogger and social media enthusiast. He has been traveling to Japan since 1990 and all over the world for his work. His work has been featured on CNN Travel, Yahoo Travel, Lonely Planet and many other publications. David writes at: http://malaysia-asia.my and is on social media platforms as @MalaysiaAsia